Becky Sauerbrunn wasn’t always the Becky Sauerbrunn the world has come to know over the past year.
The one arguably known as the best center back in the world; the woman eloquently speaking out against unequal pay; the player seen as one of the most crucial pieces to a U.S. Olympic gold medal in women’s soccer.
No, the evolution has come in spurts for the FC Kansas City and U.S. women’s national team defender — sometimes slowly, painfully; sometimes seemingly all at once.
But over the past six years, Sauerbrunn’s evolution has been a switch from near-afterthought to cornerstone, from bench-warmer to reluctant superstar. And as she’s being asked to find her voice on the field this year as a first-time national team captain, she’s also finding her voice off the field, using her newfound platform to fight for female athletes’ rights.
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The journey hasn’t been easy. But if it were a glamorous rise to the top, then that wouldn’t fit with Becky Sauerbrunn, the same one who tried to play through a broken nose in her international debut in 2008. Not long ago, Sauerbrunn didn’t even know if international soccer was a goal she could reach, and had to claw her way back into the mix.
It was just in 2010 that a 25-year-old Sauerbrunn didn’t initially make the training camp roster for World Cup qualifiers. She only got the phone call to come in after an injury to someone else left a spot vacant.
She wasn’t a full-time starter for that 2011 World Cup team, nor for the following year’s Olympic team. But those years served as a buildup for what was to come, a motivational tactic for a player already hard on herself.
“The toughest part of my career was at the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympics and wanting so much to play and physically contribute, but having to understand and realize that it’s just not my time,” Sauerbrunn said. “It didn’t matter how well I thought I was playing. When it comes down to it, it’s about putting the players on the field that will be the best 11. It just wasn’t my time. Coming to realize that and acknowledge that was huge for me down the road.”
So Sauerbrunn bided her time. In 2013, the National Women’s Soccer League was born, and Sauerbrunn was allocated to FC Kansas City. For the first three seasons of the league’s existence, she took home defender of the year honors, and also helped lead FCKC to two championships, in 2014 and 2015.
Known as a technically precise player, Sauerbrunn flourished in FCKC head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s system, which focuses on possession and shorter passes.
It wasn’t long before her play in the league, as well as her steadying presence off the bench for the national team, began to get noticed.
“She’s one of those players who was always a good, consistent player, kind of flew under the radar a little bit,” said FCKC goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart, who has played with Sauerbrunn at both the national and club level. “She maybe isn’t one you notice or pick out every game, but she’s doing a lot of things in there that people who know the game well will pick up on. I think it just took a little bit more exposure. Once she got the opportunity, she made the most of it.”
“I’ve been saying for four years she’s the best, and people thought I was crazy,” Andonovski said. “Now, I don’t have to say it anymore. Everybody knows.”
Sauerbrunn’s college coach at Virginia, Steve Swanson, shares a similar sense of satisfaction. From his time coaching her with the U16 national team to her college years, and now as an assistant with the senior national team, Swanson has watched Sauerbrunn evolve for 16 years.
“I think Becky Sauerbrunn is the best center back in the world,” Swanson said. “For me, it’s been really easy to see those qualities — I’ve seen it all in training and in games. I think what’s kind of neat to see is people talk about Becky the way I talked about Becky when she played in college. Everyone else is finally seeing the same Becky Sauerbrunn that I’ve seen.”
Who is that Becky Sauerbrunn? And what makes her so good?
When someone asks the same question of Carli Lloyd, one can simply point to a 16-minute hat trick in the World Cup final, and say, “There. That’s why she’s good.”
Hope Solo? Look at the statistics she’s piled up. Alex Morgan’s goal-scoring ability, Mallory Pugh’s stand-out footwork: Nearly everyone has something tangible you can point to.
But with Sauerbrunn, there is no highlight reel, at least in the way we’re used to watching highlights: flashy plays whizzing by with adrenaline-pumping music in the background. Sauerbrunn has few statistics, has never scored a goal at the international level.
And in most games, if she’s being the defender she’s capable of being, she’s close to invisible.
“Becky’s athleticism — it’s not something that would stand out right away,” Swanson said. “Not because she’s not a great athlete, but it’s because of where she puts herself into position, she doesn’t have to use her athleticism as much.”
If Sauerbrunn is making a SportsCenter-worthy slide tackle, in other words, she’s correcting a mistake. Sauerbrunn, instead, is always one, two, three steps ahead of an opponent, gliding into position and warding off attacks before they even start.
She gets in players’ heads before they’re even there themselves.
“The way I play, it’s very much more a mental game than a physical game,” Sauerbrunn said. “I’m looking for space and where are players leaving space. Defensively, where are we at numerical disadvantages? Do I shift more to the left because they have more players on their right side? It’s about reading the game before the game happens.”
Sauerbrunn is a coach’s dream — physical and athletic enough, should that be part of the game plan, but also smarter than most of her opponents, with an inherent knack for figuring out all the moving pieces.
“When most are playing checkers, Becky’s playing chess,” said Tim Boul, Sauerbrunn’s youth club coach from the U14 to U18 level.
“If a young player wants to learn how to play the position, she is the role model for that position,” U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Jill Ellis said of Sauerbrunn. “She has great leadership. On the field, she’s a destroyer at times when she needs to be. She’s creative when she’s on the ball, very composed, helps us stay organized. Her and Hope (Solo) have a great command of our back line.”
But as most who know her would tell you, it’s not just about Sauerbrunn’s soccer ability. She has a presence, an aura almost, that steadies a team. Her personality is not one that will make itself known via chest pounding or frantic gesticulating. She personifies the “lead-by-example” mantra.
Sauerbrunn has always been on the quieter side, even on the field, but her input has still been valued.
She was 14 and playing for the St. Louis-based JB Marine club team when she first had a coach come to her about a crucial team-related decision.
“This was during U15 tryouts,” Boul said. “There was one player I wasn’t sure about, and I said, ‘Becky, what do you think if we cut her? I want your opinion.’ She said, ‘That’s the heart and soul of our team.’ Whenever I was on the bubble about players, I could always go to Becky. I trusted her that much.”
Even at 14, Sauerbrunn displayed the same cool-headedness and maturity that would shape her into a national team captain one day.
To take on that captaincy, which Ellis bestowed on her this year, Sauerbrunn admits she’s had to step outside of her comfort zone. She has to be louder, more direct, a little more in-your-face than she’s used to. But those duties have coincided with Sauerbrunn getting a little louder off the field, too — one evolution feeding the other.
Sauerbrunn was one of five Women’s National Team players to sign her name to a lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation alleging wage discrimination in March. For someone who has always been okay with being in the shadows, it was a big jump from low-key to appearing on The Daily Show as part of the equal pay cause.
“I don’t necessarily like to be in front of cameras, but I felt so strongly about it that I felt like I had to,” she said. “It doesn’t come naturally to me.”
The same could be said of being vocal on the field. Being loud and in charge isn’t something that’s easy for Sauerbrunn, who was an English major at Virginia and is notorious for toting several books with her on national team trips. Her favorites are sci-fi and fantasy, and there’s something metaphorical about her love for reading off the field, combined with her ability to so easily read a soccer field.
Even amidst that quiet nature that has kept her behind the scenes for so long, there is nothing about Sauerbrunn that is under-the-radar anymore. She was lauded as one of the best players at the World Cup, even if she was left off the FIFA all-tournament team, much to the consternation of fans, teammates and coaches. Sauerbrunn directed a back line that was seconds away from breaking the all-time World Cup record for scoreless minutes (they went 539 minutes without allowing a goal, one shy of Germany’s record of 540).
“I think she’s grown a lot,” Ellis said of Sauerbrunn. “Now she’s in the driver’s seat. She’s definitely emerged coming out of that Olympics in London to being an integral part of that team. She’s a massive piece of why we’re successful.”
Sauerbrunn will take her newfound vocal leadership and her rock-steady presence to Brazil this week. There, the Women’s National Team will try to become the first-ever to win a Women’s World Cup and Olympic gold medal in back-to-back years. The U.S. will play New Zealand Wednesday in its first match, then round out group play with matches against France and Colombia.
For Sauerbrunn individually, it will be a chance to build off her success from last summer’s World Cup, and to further cement her status as one of the best players at her position worldwide.
From her days as a plan B option on a World Cup qualifying team, it’s been a long time coming.
“I’m very hard on myself,” Sauerbrunn said. “I think that drives me because I don’t want to let people down or let myself down. That fear of failing drives me from being complacent. … Looking back now, I think it was best for me to not get to play at first, and to have that hunger and frustration. Fighting to even make it made me appreciate it so much more when it did happen. I’ll never take any of it for granted, because I remember what it feels like to not play for this team.”
United States vs. New Zealand
What: Rio Olympics preliminary game
When: 5 p.m. Wednesday in Belo Horizonte, Brazil
TV: NBC Sports Network